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Published: February 18th 2008
Ibrahim has had these tribal marks since he was a child.
NOTE FROM EDITOR: I have spent the past four months living in Tamale in Northern Ghana. One of my first observations was that many people here (including many of my co-workers) have scars on their faces. I had never seen anything like it - and I wanted to understand it more so I enlisted the help of one of my co-workers Bawa Ibrahim. He prepared this photo essay and has interviewed traditional elders in his community.
NOTE FROM AUTHOR: My name is Bawa Ibrahim and I am from the Dagomba ethnic group in Northern Ghana. I am twenty years old and have had my marks since I was one and a half years. I was given the marks as a form of treatment for convulsions when I was a baby. It is common for children in Ghana to develop convulsions as a result of the intense heat. The traditional healer used a blade to make the marks and put medicine inside. I was given the same mark that my father has - but when I have children I will not give them the same mark unless they develop an illness that cannot be treated in the hospital.
Photo by Bawa Ibrahim
marks on the face and other parts of the body. The marks are used for identification, beautification and for traditional medical treatment. There are types of scarification which Africans call tribal marks. Every tribe has their own unique style of mark which is used to identify different ethnic groups.
ORIGIN OF SCARIFICTION; The exact origin is unknown, but differing accounts have been passed down from generation to generation. One story is that it started after the Kings of Africa started invading other kings and their people for land. They developed the method of scarification to mark the family members selected to rule the captured land. In the future - when they returned to the same area and saw the tribal markings they would know they already controlled the land.
This practice became widespread as a way for family members to locate lost family members who had found their way to other tribes land. Some of the tribes in Northern Ghana who use the markings are the Gonjas, Naumbas, Dagombas, Frafras, and Mamprusis.
PROFESSION: The traditional healer who performs the scarification is known as a wanzam. The profession is passed down from generation to generation. It is believed
Photo by Bawa Ibrahim
that the skills are transferred naturally to them. They have many duties; shortly after a baby is born he or she will have a naming ceremony where the wanzam will shave the head of the child and if requested also give the tribal marks. These wanzams are also responsible for performing circumcisions on male children. In the past they also circumcised females - but that practice has been stopped because it is now considered inhumane.
IDENTITY: Most people who have the scars can be identified as belonging to a specific ethnic group. There is one vertical scar among the Dagombas in Northern Ghana which identifies them as having direct grand fathers from Nigeria. The Gonjas of Northern Ghana have three vertical lines along the sides of their face.
BEAUTIFICATION: Some people belong to a tribe that does not have a specific marking - yet they choose to be scarred for the purpose of beautification. The wanzam said he occasionally has adults requesting marks they find attractive. In the past a person who did not receive tribal marks may have been teased and not accepted by other members of their ethnic group.
TREATMENT: There some childhood illnesses that
photo by Ibrahim Bawa
traditional healers use scarification to treat including convulsion, measles, pneumonia, stomach pains, and so on. To treat these diseases which they believe to originate in the blood, the wanzam makes a small cut at the joints or, on the chest, on the stomach, or waist. Powder or potion is then applied directly to the cut - so that it goes directly into the blood stream.
THE FUTURE: The future of scarification is uncertain. It is no longer as popular among the younger generation. Some people feel that the practice is barbaric and no longer serves a purpose. Others stopped giving the marks in the name of peace - in an area rife with ethnic conflict they prefer to be identified as a Ghanaian instead of as belonging to a specific ethnic group. But the practice will continue for the foreseeable future. There remains a large group of people who are proud of their marks and say they will continue to honour their ancestors and tradition by passing on the marks to their own children.
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